Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement, 1866–1912 by William Mirola (review)
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Reviewed by
William Mirola, Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement, 1866–1912. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 264pp. $55.00.

Redeeming Time is a rather unique book. William Mirola sets himself the task of re-examining the relationship between Chicago’s Protestant religious leaders and the eight-hour day movement. It appears that when he set out to undertake this project twenty years ago, he expected to find something that might run counter to the prevailing consensus among labor historians. Many earlier books on Chicago’s labor movement concluded that the Protestant churches were generally allied to the business elite and were nearly universally hostile to the labor movement until well into the Progressive Era. In fact, Mirola’s book completely confirms that consensus, and he carefully and honestly records that confirmation. Yet, in revealing nothing surprising, Mirola is able to articulate a nuanced, almost dialectical appreciation for the relationship between religion and social movements even when the churches and the labor movement activists were nearly always moving in opposite directions.

As a new world came into being with the growth of a wage labor economy and modern industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth century, workers, employers, and clergy all used a religious lens to make sense of these changes. As Mirola explains, however, this lens led them to draw different conclusions. In the 1860s and then again in the 1880s, workers made reference to a radical historical Jesus to inform their struggles. They drew on the language of the golden rule to reveal the injustices of the new world and to attempt to draw clergy to their side, even if they had few illusions in the efficacy of this discourse to convince employers. Clergy generally deployed a different version of Christianity. They viewed leisure time as a threat to workers, and saw the early eight-hour movement in terms of their recent struggle for temperance. Clergy opposed the movement by arguing that if [End Page 127] workers had more time off, they were likely to waste this time in dissolution at the saloon. So as the eight-hour movement coalesced, Mirola shows, workers consistently deployed religious language, but they found virtually no allies among Protestant clergy.

Eventually, in fits and starts, some Protestant clergy eventually came to a half-hearted support of the movement, but they only did so once the eight-hour day had become mainstream, relatively late in the Progressive Era. Even then, as some Protestant Clergy embraced the Social Gospel, this support was rooted in an attempt to help broker class peace, rather than a support for the legitimacy of workers’ demands against their employers. “By 1912,” Mirola notes, “Protestants recognized the moral legitimacy of the eight-hour movement, but creating a more unified urban community remained the centerpiece of their support” (196). Protestant clergy condemned strikes throughout this period, and never endorsed any of the strategies that workers found effective in pushing their demands. Thus, from a practical standpoint, Mirola shows that Protestant clergy were at best useless, and at worst enemies of the eight-hour day movement, and by extension, Chicago’s working class.

As a result, from the 1860s into the 1910s, workers increasingly abandoned religious language and references, and the idea that Protestant clergy could be useful allies. Instead, workers built effective unions, organized strikes, mobilized politically, and little by little, achieved their goals through class mobilization, not through the clergy’s hoped for religious community.

The most interesting moment in the book comes when union printers struck the Western Methodist Book Concern in 1905–1906, demanding the closed shop and the eight-hour day. The Methodists were one of the Protestant denominations most friendly in principle to the eight-hour day, and most composed of working class members. The Book Concern was a member of an employer association, the Typothetae, that was hostile to the union’s demands and that pushed the Methodist print shop to resist its workers. The Book Concern was thus caught in the middle, disagreeing with the Typothetae’s attacks on the workers, yet refusing for months to give in to the strikers because it disparaged the union’s oath of...